Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system goes a bit rogue and switches from only attacking microbes to attacking healthy tissue. Women make up 75 percent of all autoimmune disease sufferers, yet medical science hasn’t performed much research to date on why or how these disorders affect women differently.
Treating autoimmune diseases more common in females costs billions every year. And the toll these diseases take in human suffering means a significantly decreased quality of life for millions affected. Unraveling the mystery of why women suffer autoimmune diseases more often than men may lead to new and improved treatments for these disorders.
Why Do More Females Than Males Suffer Autoimmune Diseases?
One theory as to the prevalence of common autoimmune diseases in women names hormones as likely culprits. Indeed, women often develop autoimmune disorders during periods of massive hormonal shifts, such as those that occur after giving birth.
In addition to hormones, some researchers suggest differences in the DNA between men and women cause women to develop autoimmune disorders more frequently than men. Because women carry two X chromosomes while men carry XY chromosomes, genes linked to the X chromosome may cause twice the problems in women.
Finally, women possess far more complex immune systems than men. That makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, as women need their immune systems to pull double duty by protecting both her and her baby while she is pregnant. However, the more complex a system becomes, the higher the likelihood that one or more of the components may go awry.
What Are the Common Autoimmune Diseases in Women?
Autoimmune diseases in women run the gamut from rheumatoid arthritis to Crohn’s disease to lupus. Indeed, to date, medical science has identified more than 80 separate autoimmune disorders.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) strips many women of their quality of life, as it causes chronic, widespread joint pain. Some women with severe RA lose the ability to walk and to perform the basic activities of daily living. While many think of RA as a disease of the elderly, RA even affects some children.
Lupus affects not only the joints, but every organ in the body. Symptoms of lupus include extreme fatigue as well as widespread pain. Those affected by lupus often develop a telltale butterfly-shaped rash across their nose and cheeks, although rashes may appear anywhere on the body.
Autoimmune disease can take the form of gastrointestinal distress as well. Crohn’s disease sufferers experience extreme inflammation anywhere in the digestive tract. Ulcerative colitis (UC), a related condition, affects the intestines, but not the stomach or esophagus. Because symptoms may flare up at times and recede at others, if a doctor cannot diagnose Crohn’s or UC based on inflammation, they may diagnose the patient with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
Other autoimmune diseases common in women include:
- Psoriasis, which causes skin rashes
- Uveitis, which impacts the eyes
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which affects metabolism
Because the symptoms of many common autoimmune disorders in women overlap — for example, a woman may receive an IBS diagnosis when the underlying issue is celiac disease — women experiencing any unusual symptoms should see their doctor for proper diagnosis. Frustratingly, because so many autoimmune disorders are tricky to pinpoint, sometimes years pass before a woman receives the correct diagnosis.
Treating Autoimmune Diseases More Common in Females
Autoimmune diseases often constitute lifelong conditions. While medical science currently has no cure, a combination of medication and alternative therapies can help many women with autoimmune diseases live active, healthy lives.
Some medicinal treatments for common autoimmune diseases in women offer palliative relief from pain. Those suffering from RA, for example, benefit from over-the-counter painkillers. Those with severe pain may require stronger prescriptions to find relief, but techniques such as cortisone injections offer pain relief free from any mind-altering side effects.
Other medical therapies seek to replace hormones missing from the body due to autoimmune disease. Those with thyroid disease, for example, may need to take a lifelong thyroid supplement to restore their hormones to proper levels.
Finally, since an overactive immune system is the underlying culprit behind any autoimmune diseases more common in females, medications that lower the body’s immune response will reduce inflammation and flare-ups. Of course, lowering the body’s immune response leaves the individual more susceptible to germs, so those receiving this type of treatment should monitor their symptoms carefully and seek medical advice if they feel a cold coming on.
Promising Future Trends
Newer medications such as biologics offer hope to women with autoimmune diseases more common in females. For common autoimmune diseases in women such as RA, biologics can prevent further painful damage to the joints and help sufferers of UC or Crohn’s rebuild a healthy intestinal lining. While the cost of biologics adds up quickly, many women find the improved quality of life they enjoy makes the price worth paying.
As advances in medical science progress, health professionals learn more each day about how our immune system works — and what can come to the rescue when it stops functioning properly. New advances will help future generations of women with autoimmune diseases more common in females nevertheless lead active, healthy and happy lives.